University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Seeking Zen in the Museum Storeroom: What Do X-Files, Gurgling Sounds, and Museums Have in Common?


By: Lucy Fowler Williams

June 17, 2016

Something HUGE has been happening at the Penn Museum in one of seven American Section storerooms. For the past two years, downstairs in the sub-basement (the basement below the basement), in a room about the size of a football field, two small teams of Inventory Assistants have been moving carefully from shelf to shelf, checking in on 90,319 ancient tools and ceramic vessels. Working daily with the Registrar’s Office, and, in particular, the Museum’s Database Administrator Danni Peters, these Inventory Assistants have been undertaking a significant pilot project for the upcoming Museum-wide Collections Inventory (to be described in a future blog post).

As each object is identified, its current location is updated on the Museum’s EMu collections database, and a bright green tag indicates the team has seen it and is moving on.  For many this could be a kind of mind-numbing experience, but for Daniel LoMastro, Laura Hazeltine, Ashley Scott, Yin Liu, and Jacob Bridy, this is definitely not the case. As we all know, appreciation of life experience is in the eye of the beholder, and in that vein these inventory gurus claim to find a kind of zen in the storeroom, where organizing, counting, and problem solving related to ancient artifacts is incredibly satisfying. Dedicated, intellectually curious, and efficient, they are champions at deciphering one-hundred-year old scrawl – obscured numbers, illegible numbers, flipped numbers – you name it, they’ve seen it, worked through it, and solved the puzzle.  

Left to right: Laura Hazeltine, Jacob Bridy, and Dan LoMastro, 2016. Trained in archaeology and history at Millersville University, Laura is interested in collections management and community service. Jacob trained in paleontology at Penn and will pursue an MA in Museum Studies at the University of Washington in the Fall. Dan received his training in archaeology at the University of Pittsburgh; he also works on the Museum’s Ban Chiang Project.
Left to right: Laura Hazeltine, Jacob Bridy, and Dan LoMastro, 2016. Trained in archaeology and history at Millersville University, Laura is interested in collections management and community service. Jacob trained in paleontology at Penn and will pursue an MA in Museum Studies at the University of Washington in the Fall. Dan received his training in archaeology at the University of Pittsburgh; he also works on the Museum’s Ban Chiang Project.
Their purpose is to update the collections inventory so that everything in the room is findable, searchable, and sortable. Along the way they have gained incredible project management experience in tackling such a large undertaking. Project management on this scale requires a system that is robust yet flexible enough to handle problems as they arise, and breaking down the tasks is critical. They work in teams of two and deliberate redundancies are built into the system – for example, one team member calls out the object number and the other reads it back as he or she enters it onto the spreadsheet. On bad days they say it sometimes feels like they create two new problems for every two problems they solve. Thousands of pottery sherds don’t have individual numbers written on them, for example, and collections with the same number are often found in more than one location and need to be consolidated. Sometimes numbers remain illegible and will be worked out at a later date. Tracking those problems – about 5 % of the whole is also important.

For many of us in the museum field this is what it means to put your time in the trenches. Perhaps not particularly glamorous, this is the bread and butter of collections work, keeping track of vast stores of objects that document human history. Spending time with such objects is what makes most of us excited about our work. Yet spending two years in the cavernous sub-basement is truly a commitment. With no windows, two levels below ground in a 90 year-old building, there are all kinds of “strange noises, random gurgles, toilets flushing, and sump-pumps pounding.” The teams keep their focus by listening to music – Hans Zimmer, Queen, Blink 182. Once in a great while, just to fill the blank spots as they are sorting, they stream an old TV show as background noise, The X-Files or Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Clockwise from top left: Daniel LoMastro, Ashley Scott, Laura Hazeltine, and Yin Liu in the sub-basement, 2015. Ashley completed her MA in Egyptology at Penn and is now working with the Egyptian Section on collections storage renovation. Yin is currently pursuing an MA in Museum Anthropology at Columbia University.
Clockwise from top left: Daniel LoMastro, Ashley Scott, Laura Hazeltine, and Yin Liu in the sub-basement, 2015. Ashley completed her MA in Egyptology at Penn and is now working with the Egyptian Section on collections storage renovation. Yin is currently pursuing an MA in Museum Anthropology at Columbia University.
One of the more tedious tasks was sifting through 10,000 pottery sherds from the Maya site of Piedras Negras, Guatemala, excavated by J. Alden Mason and Linton Satterthwaite, Jr., in the 1930s. The team developed a sorting system to assemble finds from specific site locations.
One of the more tedious tasks was sifting through 10,000 pottery sherds from the Maya site of Piedras Negras, Guatemala, excavated by J. Alden Mason and Linton Satterthwaite, Jr., in the 1930s. The team developed a sorting system to assemble finds from specific site locations.

This is a team effort and all of us in the American Section extend a huge thank you to our Administration for its commitment to collections stewardship as a mainstay of the Museum’s Mission, and to our colleagues from the Registrar’s Office and EMu Database Team who have helped plan, implement, and oversee the re-inventory effort. This is an important accomplishment. And we are indebted to Daniel, Laura, Ashley, Yin, and Jacob for their patience, skillful commitment, and enthusiasm – there is no doubt that this experience is helping to shape them into talented leaders of tomorrow’s museums.


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